When Tom James (Hugh Laurie) joined Selina Meyer’s (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) campaign on Veep, everyone congratulated her for making such a great choice. The same can and should be said for Veep in bringing Hugh Laurie back to our TV screeners. In a complete contrast to Dr. House, though, Laurie as James is so affable and friendly that everyone absolutely adores him — so much so, that Selina worries he’s taking the spotlight away from her as POTUS. As one headline says, “Tom James: The Best POTUS We Never Had.” “Don’t show that one [to Selina],” her personal assistant suggests.
One of the things that makes HBO’s biting satire so great is that it feels like it could be real: that politics are petty and full of mistrust, and no real friendships or connections can be made because of a constant jockeying for power. Despite that, Laurie as the clean-cut James comes off as a good guy, a Mr. Smith Goes to Washington-type who just wants to do right by his constituents, and charm the pants off of them as he goes.
But in “Mommy Meyer,” James starts to show another side to himself, and also proves that his charm will only get him so far. In a Town Hall Debate, James gets every response perfectly correct, with the crowd loving him, until he says that he believes the shooter in a recent Pittsburgh spree was a victim, too. Then the crowd turns on him, and those watching lament his idiocy in saying such a futilely controversial thing. That act later makes way for his on-camera apology, which he makes into an extemporaneous expression of remorse. Once again, he knocks it out of the park.
Veep is a fast-paced show where both the camera and the retorts fly around the room in constant motion. But in that scene, Laurie managed to draw the moment out just long enough to show James’ disapproval and hesitation at having to apologize at all. He looks around, stewing slightly, making viewers (and his team) nervous about how he might “go rogue” next. When he crumples his paper, the stage is set for a rally against these knee-jerk, PR-driven “I’m sorrys,” but instead, he comes out with something that feels sincere.
Whether it is or not doesn’t matter. Laurie embodies a great politician’s abilities — much like an actor — to portray what people want to see, not who they really are. Tom James appears to care about people, getting into in-depth conversations with some, and doing special acts of kindness for others. But we see all of this through Selina’s (and the show’s) deeply cynical eye, and it casts suspicion over everything James does. Yet for the most part, Laurie gives no hint of calculation to his actions.
Until “Mommy Meyer.” Here, we start to really see James as not just a regular guy, but a true politician. The real moment comes, though, when James is talking to Jonah (Timothy Simmons) and Richard (Sam Richardson), who let it slip about the second data breach. James has a choice to amiably ignore it, but instead he presses them on the issue, and then offers to give them a ride back to DC (to butter them up enough to get the facts).
It works. Back at the White House, he lets Selina’s other staffers know that he knows about the breach, although he does keep Jonah and Richard in his coterie. He also lets slip that he wants to legalize drugs, but acknowledges after a beat that he would never say that to the public … right? James’ friendly perma-smile seems more and more like a calculated persona. Or is it?
Laurie has been a great addition to Veep’s fourth season. When I initially reviewed Season 4, I thought it was good, but maybe not the series’ best. Selina being President took away a lot of the tension and energy of the previous seasons. But with the advent of Tom James, Selina now has competition within her own camp, and his personality is impossible to pin down. Is he sincere? Is he playing them all? Is he biding his time before he makes his move? Or is he really just a rogue, riding his charm to power?
Not knowing what to make of Tom James yet has given Veep a solid new take on its story of political turmoil. It’s not easy to come into a show with such a fantastic, established cast who all work so well together, and really make a positive impact. But Hugh Laurie has absolutely done it.
You can check out all the past choices for TV Performers of the Week here.